The legal aid system is in danger of collapsing unless the government increases its funding, warns Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa New Zealand Law Society.
Former Bar President Tiana Epati hopes there will be good news in this month’s budget for the legal aid system.
The lead lawyer said hourly rates for legal aid work had not changed since 2008 and were about half of what a Crown prosecutor or independent lawyer receives.
“As a result, there has been an exodus of lawyers willing and able to offer legal aid,” Epati said.
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The Bar last year commissioned an independent report from Colmar Brunton, which surveyed nearly 3,000 lawyers on “access to justice”.
Three-quarters of the lawyers who participated said they had to turn away legal aid applicants because they didn’t have the time or because their firms had reached capacity for the legal aid clients they could afford.
Epati said the national survey showed the extent of the problem, with thousands of people struggling to get legal representation with potentially life-changing consequences.
With Covid-19 making the situation even worse, Epati said, the Law Society wants the government to step in and help. “Aotearoa New Zealand’s legal aid system is collapsing,” she said.
Epati was elected President of the Bar in 2018 and last month officially concluded her term in the position. She was replaced by Jacques Lethbridge.
Lethbridge said the Law Society has long advocated for increased funding for the legal aid system.
“Equal access to justice is fundamental to the rule of law,” she said. “The Law Society’s access to justice survey last year found that 20,000 Kiwis had been denied legal aid representation in the previous 12 months.
“This is not acceptable to me or anyone in the law. A structural change is needed in our legal aid system and fast.
Lethbridge said key findings from the access to justice survey included:
- On average, legal aid lawyers were unpaid for half of the hours they spent on their last legal aid case.
- Only 15% of legal aid lawyers were fully paid for the time spent on their last legal aid case, while one in three were unpaid for more than half of their time. dedicated to his latest legal aid case.
- Legal aid lawyers work 50 hours per week compared to 46 hours for those who do not provide legal aid. On average, that was 11 hours more than the number of legal aid lawyers.
- 25% of legal aid lawyers said they plan to do less legal aid work or quit altogether in the next 12 months.
- The main reason for wanting to do less legal aid work was inadequate compensation.
- Half of the lawyers surveyed rated the justice system as bad or very bad at providing everyone in Aotearoa with access to justice.
“Lawyers undertaking legal aid work are deeply committed to ensuring fair and equitable access to justice,” said Lethbridge. “The fact that these practitioners are not ready to continue is indicative of a system that desperately needs both structural change and better support.
“Covid-19 has increased delays throughout the justice system, compounding access to justice issues that will not be addressed without better resources for a chronically underfunded system.
“The Law Society has asked the government to introduce a substantial overall increase in legal aid compensation in the 2022 budget to at least stem the flow. This includes better funding for junior lawyers to support legal aid seniors.
Without this funding, the problem was compounded because junior lawyers were the senior lawyers of the future, Lethbridge said, succession was fundamental to a well-functioning justice system.
“We will continue to advocate for increased legal aid and systemic change to the legal aid system. Legal aid pay has languished, having not been reviewed for more than a decade, and with it the prospects of access to justice for ordinary Kiwis.
“No citizen is immune from contact with our judicial system. When engaged in this system, everyone deserves the right to access quality legal advice and representation, regardless of their circumstances.
“Aotearoa New Zealand has a proud history of wanting a court system that ensures people are well represented, which is what is at the heart of these needed changes to legal aid,” Lethbridge said.
Separately, Epati was arrested by security at the Gisborne courthouse on Monday. In an Instagram post, Epati said the incident unfolded on May 2 when a security guard mistakenly identified her as a client rather than a lawyer.
“So it finally happened. I was mistaken for a criminal defendant this morning as I walked into court,” the 46-year-old former Crown prosecutor wrote.
“Held by security and asked for my name on the [court appearance] listing. I thought I’d include a selfie to show that I was also wearing one of my best suits. #no words”
Samoan Epati hails from Falealupo and Sale’imoa and was elected President of the Law Society in 2018, becoming the first Pasifika and youngest leader in the governing body’s 125-year history.
Following the courthouse confusion, Epati told TheCoconet.TV that she realized pretty quickly that “the security guy thought I was a defendant and I said really loud, you know that I am a lawyer, yes?”
“Oh no, really sorry,” replied the guard. I wasn’t so shaken. No longer struggling to understand how a well-groomed brunette woman wearing an Issey Miyake suit and carrying a folder could be the accused.
“And that a Maori security guard in Gisborne could make that mistake.”
Epati is also president of the Gisborne branch of the NZ Law Society.